Monday, June 4, 2018

Writing Goals and the End of the World

Hey, Blog.

I turned 30 years old recently. I had 6 people attend my birthday, which means I got two friends a decade over the course of my life.

I was very disappointed and a lot of people said the problem was that my party was on Memorial Day weekend. They're right. I should have just rescheduled the date of my birth thirty years ago. My bad.

Anyway, I'll talk more about my birthday and the hilarious depressive episode that followed in my next post...

Memes!  Memes!  Memes!  Memes!

...but for this week I wanted to post a series I'm working on.  Or maybe a book.  I don't fucking know yet.

Andy and I recently went over to my neighbor Elizabeth's house and we were talking about my writing and somehow the topic of The Fifth Horseman came up.  The Fifth Horseman was an idea I had two years ago that I began with gusto and then got sad because of my job and stopped.

Classic Tony!

Anyways, the whole thing was inspired by a prompt on /r/WritingPrompts.  The prompt:

An ancient evil awakens. 
A modern evil doesn't like competition.

I wrote a short story and was later contacted by a script writer who wanted to turn it into a series.  That never materialized (because of my aforementioned depression) but it laid out the groundwork for the series. I'd like to post what I have here so far so that it's publicly available, and I'm going to keep working on it. Maybe it'll someday be self-published on Amazon and I'll be able to sell six copies, one to each of my friends.

Dream big.

Here's the chapter index, notes, and first two chapters as I wrote them. Really looking forward to starting this project again.

The idea

You might recall that in the Book of Revelation, chapter 6, four "horsemen of the apocalypse" are described.

My idea is as follows: The three "original" horsemen, Pestilence, War, and Famine, work under Death.  Recently, they receive three new counterparts who are essentially opposite sides of the coin: Disconnection, Waste, and Indulgence.  They correlate to seven sins and seven virtues, with each two Horsemen sharing two.  (Note that Indulgence and Famine share two of the sins and virtues equally; Pestilence was never given one because it is later revealed he shares Envy/Kindness with Disconnection.)

The main conflict of the story is that Pestilence hates his replacement, Disconnection.

The Riders and their sins and virtues are linked as follows (with each chapter exploring the connections):

War - Pride - Humility
Waste - Sloth - Diligence

Pestilence - The Main Character
Disconnection - Envy - Kindness

Famine - Gluttony / Greed - Charity /Temperance
Indulgence - Greed / Lust - Charity /Temperance

Death - Wrath - Patience / Persistence

The outline

  1. Meet Disconnection
  2. Seven Horsemen
  3. War and Indulgence
  4. War and Waste
  5. Famine and Indulgence
  6. Famine and Waste
  7. For Conquest and Glory
  8. Pestilence Goes to School
  9. Pestilence Goes to a Ball Game
  10. Pestilence Goes to the Circus
  11. Pestilence and the Horses
  12. Pestilence Files a Formal Complaint
  13. Pestilence and Death
  14. Pestilence and Humanity
  15. Pestilence and Disconnection 

Chapter One/ Pilot / Pitch
(the one that started it all)

The door to room 608 opened slowly, casting a soft beam of fluorescent light on its occupants. Mark Horowitz, age 89, lay sleeping on the hospital bed, his heart monitor beeping out a steady tattoo.

The man who entered room 608 was not a doctor, but might have been a patient. He was gaunt and bony. His skin had a grey, waxy appearance. His teeth were too widely spaced and appeared too loose to be healthy; his eyes were rheumy and slightly yellow. His nails were too long. His hair, black, was greasy, thinning. His breath rattled in his chest, and from every pore came a sickly sweet smell that was reminiscent of rotting things. He was not wearing a patient's gown, however. He was wearing a neatly tailored pinstripe suit.

"Hey gramps."

The man in the suit stopped by Mark Horowitz's bed and noticed, for the first time, a young man sitting beside him. The young man was in jeans; his t-shirt was well-worn but clean. He had blond hair held into a stubby mohawk with gel. His chin had a few lightly colored hairs, and it was clear he was attempting, and failing at, a beard. His face was an open, honest one; he looked like a guy who might be on the football team but wasn't the star quarterback. A handsome (if forgettable) fellow.

"Hello," said the man in the pinstripe suit in a gravely voice. This prompted a wet, hacking cough. He grabbed one of the hospital bed's guard rails to steady himself. His hands shook.

The young man didn't even watch. His attention had been diverted to the phone in his hands, where he was playing Candy Crush.

"So you're Pestilence, huh?"

"H-how... did you know?" asked the man in the suit between coughs. Shakily, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. He offered it to the younger man, but he waved it away.

"I've heard about you, from Famine. I'm Disconnection. But they all call me Dis."

"A pleasure," gasped Pestilence, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.

"Yeah, yeah. Sorry you wasted your time but he's going to be okay."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Mark." Disconnection twisted in the chair so that his legs dangled over the armrest. He tilted back his head, holding his phone over his face. The screen illuminated his blond goatee, or what was supposed to be a goatee. His fingers texted rapidly as he spoke. "The doctors are going to get him a liver transplant so the cirrhosis is probably not going to get him. Sorry to disappoint you."

"They're curing him?" asked Pestilence, dumbfounded. "But... the pneumonia..."

"Antibiotics. Hey, do you have FaceBook?"

Pestilence looked down at Mark. He didn't look 89. He looked much younger, and his face was peaceful.

Pestilence looked up at Dis. "But where are his grandkids? They weren't vaccinated. They're supposed to be here, catching the measles."

"Sorry bro. They're not coming. Aiden's got a raid and Mackenzie is a mod for Advice Animals, so they're sort of busy."

"But he's dying."

"No he's not. Do you see Death here? Nope. Because the doctors took care of it. Modern medicine, man. It's something else. Hey, what's your Twitter handle?"

Pestilence shook his head. "I don't have a cell phone."

Dis looked up briefly in surprise. "For real? Oh man. Well... uh, good for you, I guess."

Pestilence reached out and touched Mark's face. His brow furrowed in his sleep, and the heart monitor began beeping more rapidly. In an instant, the door flew open and a nurse rushed in. She pushed Pestilence out of the way without a second thought and bent over Mark to check on him.

Mark's eyes fluttered open. "Sheila?" he gasped.

"You're okay," said the nurse, patting his chest. "It's just me. You're just fine. We're taking good care of you."

"Where's Sheila?"

"She went home, Mr. Horowitz. She'll be back first thing tomorrow, though, I'm sure."

Mark reached up weakly. "Could you stay with me?"

Disconnection grinned at Pestilence and wiggled his eyebrows. The nurse's pager began beeping. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket, checked it, and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Horowitz. I'm a bit busy right now, but I'll come back shortly." She began texting on her phone, and walked out of the room with her eyes focused on the screen.

Pestilence and Disconnection looked at each other.

"It's incredible, isn't it? People." Disconnection paused to take a selfie. "You bring them war, famine, floods, plagues, whatever, and somehow, they always find the silver lining. They unite and they grow stronger. They feed off each other. But then, you give them access to information, and it all falls apart. Knowledge is power, and power is corrupting. Humans love information, and they love stimulation. They crave amusement. Their natural curiosity is all-consuming, and they poison themselves with it. Give them access to the media, to each other, and everything good about them evaporates in a cloud of liking and sharing and inflating their sorry little egos for some virtual validation. You shrink their world, and you shrink their very souls. Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it easy?"

Pestilence took a few shaky steps back. "You... you're a monster. That's not how we do this. That's not how we do any of this! We're supposed to cause them hardship, not... not turn them against each other!"

Disconnection stood, his face illuminated by the screen of his phone, his grin manic in the electronic glow. "Wanna know a secret?" he whispered.

Pestilence shook his head, rooted to the ground, unable to run. Disconnection took a few steps toward him, his phone beeping softly over Mark's heart monitor, and spoke anyway.

"...I'm really good at Flappy Bird."

Bits and Pieces

From Chapter 7: Pestilence talks to War.

Pestilence needed to talk to the others alone. That much was obvious.

For millennia, for longer than time itself, he and the other horsemen had ridden throughout the world, testing people, wreaking havoc, and watching with pride as they failed and the humans overcame. But now, it seemed, things were different. The end of times? Finally, after all this time… the great, long good-bye?

“WAR!” he shouted, to be heard over the revving of the Harley. War sat on her cherry-red motorcycle in the parking lot of the Diner on Olive Tree Lane and watched the other departing, appearing to enjoy the noise she was creating.

“WHAT?” she yelled back.


“OKAY. BAR ON 8TH TONIGHT,” she yelled.

“NO, NOW!” yelled Pestilence. But War ignored him. She backed out the bike gently, then gunned it out of the parking lot without a turn signal. Pestilence cringed as she zipped neatly across three lanes of traffic, causing two cars to nearly collide. The drivers got out and

[Section lost.]

Pestilence covered his mouth with his once-white handkerchief and coughed. War ignored him. She held her cigarette between her index and middle finger, casually. Just below the surface, one could sense an incredible power, a tension that needed only the smallest spark to ignite. Her muscles were coiled like a large cat waiting to spring; everything about her bearing screamed that her seemingly casual stance was purposeful and intended, and that it would take little to break her from it and unleash her fury.

“You’re honestly okay with them?” asked Pestilence.

“Of course. As far as I’m concerned, they’re excellent allies.”

“But… but do you think their approaches are… ah, I don’t know… honorable?”

War let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “Ha! Honorable? Honorable is a dirty little word. Honor is what I promise young boys and vengeful families. Honor is the fool’s gold I use to gild their weapons and to shade their eyes. You think honor is anything more more than one of my tools? Since the dawn of human consciousness, since my conception, honor has meant only one thing to me. It’s the pride of humans, the pride that lets me exploit them. Do you think I could coax anyone into an early grave without it? If you think honor is anything but a comforting lie and a call to arms, you’re mistaken, Pest. Honor is…”

She blew out a puff of smoke and, with a hand, waved it away into the cold, still night.

Pestilence looked down. “You’ve done good, too.”

“Well, of course. Progress marches on like an army. People band together against common enemies, it’s true. But pride is the most powerful of human emotions. People betray each other, and seek vengeance, and they do it all in the name of honor. And that sense of pride is far more powerful than any sense of compassion they have. I draw men to me and they come, gladly, bearing spears and arrows and guns and bombs, and they gleefully mow each other down while I laugh and laugh.” She smiled. It was a wide, wet, red smile. “Heroes.” She laughed, low and throaty. “The prideful little heroes. They fight, and I win. I always win.”

From Chapter 7: Pestilence talks to Waste.

Pestilence was struggling to light his lighter when a flame ignited beneath his cupped hands. He looked up to see Waste holding out a plastic lighter. She made sure his was lit before she lit her own. It was the last in the pack; she tossed aside the empty pack without a second glance. The breeze blew it away down the block.

“You don’t like me,” she said pensively. It was a statement, not a question, so Pestilence didn’t respond. “It’s alright. No one likes any of us, really. But we perform an important role, you know.” She nodded, agreeing with herself. “I, for example. I’m the result of progress, and of convenience, and of automated, streamlined, industrial processes. All of those things are considered good, so why fret over the byproduct? I give back to people their leisure time. I remove the need for skilled labor, or for personal responsibility. Mine’s a sterile, prepackaged, disposable, one-time-use world. Isn’t that a nice, convenient thing?”

Pestilence said nothing.

“You might think I’m stepping on your toes. I know that disposables and one-time-use products have really damaged the infection game for you. But we could be great together. Instead of picking them off individually, we can slowly poison the lot of them, all together. It could be your magnum opus, Pest. This doesn’t have to be personalized. It can be streamlined, just like everything else. An assembly-line of human deterioration. The greatest human folly is their own laziness. They crave boredom, and they crave leisure, and they’re willing to destroy their own habitat to get more of it. The air and the water, the food, everything. And radiation. Oh, Pest… don’t you see how much potential there is?”

“It’s not meant to be a process. It’s supposed to be personal” said Pestilence gruffly. “I infect humans. Not the water or the air.”

“If you truly believed in making it personal, how much more personal can it be than this? They choose the easiest and most convenient option and it leads to their own downfall. They drive their cars and eat their hamburgers and never think twice about it, but they’re the one swirling around the drain they’ve created. I think that’s beautiful.” Her face broke into a wide grin. “Falling autumn leaves, dry and ashy black, signal one great, final winter.”

Chapter Two: 
Seven Horsemen

The door to bus line 608 opened slowly with a pneumatic hiss to let on the waiting passenger. The passenger boarded gratefully and, with shaking hands, pulled out a well-worn leather wallet. Slowly, painfully, his knuckles gnarled with arthritis and shaking faintly, he counted out a handful of dirty coins to put into the till. Having paid his fare, he made his way toward the back of the bus, using the stainless-steel poles to steady himself, pausing occasionally to pull up his slacks, which were far too large for him.

Pestilence was not an attractive man.

He never had been, but tens of thousands of years had taken its toll. His skin was pulled too tightly over his skin and was pale to a point of sickness. His black hair was thinning badly and was perpetually greasy. His white dress shirt had a slightly yellow stain on its front of indeterminate origin.

Pestilence was a man people looked on with equal parts revulsion and pity, which was precisely the look he was going for. Back in the day, he'd walked through plague cities on a pure white horse that only served to emphasize his sickness with its vigor. People had fled him in droves. It was worth the cost of the horse. (He went through about two a year. He was dreadful at keeping things alive, be they houseplants or stallions.)

Nowadays, though, with horses out of style, he had developed a certain degree of fondness for the public transit system. He watched with grandfatherly enjoyment as people coughed on the seats, the poles, and each other. Occasionally a child would lick something while a distracted mother stared out the window. It was an elegant system and one of the last bastions of humanity untouched by the development of germ theory.

Of course, it was a bit slow. Pestilence arrived at the Diner on Olive Tree Lane twenty minutes late, but there was no avoiding that.

He disembarked slowly, hacking wetly into a once-white handkerchief. As the bus pulled away in a cloud of smoke and dust, a small girl in braids waved from the window, nose pressed against the glass. He waved back, then turned toward the diner.

His companions were already there. He could pick out War a million miles away; her cherry-red Harley was parked aggressively close to the handicap spot, daring anyone to touch or ticket it. She had always had a flare for the dramatic. If she could, then no doubt, she would have taken an elephant or a tank. She would have fit perfectly riding a bomb to their meetings and waving a cowboy hat in the air; there was no doubt in Pestilence's mind that her Harley was the loudest model, the Hog to end all Hogs.

Parked more conservatively two spots down was a shiny new blue SUV. A sticker on the back bumper showed a little cartoon hand giving a thumbs-up. Pestilence wasn't sure why, but that sticker evoked a sense of dread in him.

Beside the SUV was black van. The black van had a peeling "End World Hunger NOW!" bumper sticker next to a "no GMOs" and "Living Gluten-free!" sticker. Cute, thought Pestilence. Famine had a tendency to hop onto any fad diet he could get his hands on, taking them to dangerous extremes whenever possible. Lately, when he wasn't on safari, he spent his time working from home, where he managed a series of "pro-ana" web forums.

There was a purple BMW and a bright yellow Hummer parked between the van and the green Kia Rio at the far end of the lot. The Kia was dirty, paling its green to more of a grey color. The last time he'd seen her, she'd had a Corvair, in the same color, and in the same desperate need of a wash.

Pestilence let himself into the diner. It was uncreatively called "The Diner," although those that went there called it "The Diner on Olive Tree Lane" to distinguish it from the other Diner across town on 3rd Street.

It was mid-afternoon, a brisk autumn day, and the place was empty except for one very large party in the corner. A brightly smiling hostess began to get a menu, but Pestilence waved her off and pointed to his group, unable to talk due to a fit of surprised coughing.

Concealing her disgust, the hostess took him to the table and sat him down and went off as quickly as she could to get him some water.

"Well, look who's here!" exclaimed Famine jovially, consulting his wrist watch with an exaggerated manner. Famine was tall, lean man with a shaved head who was often mistaken for an athlete. He was well-dressed in a slim-fit European suit. Online, he went as "Raven93," and doctored pictures of pretty girls who were impossibly, skeletally thin, except when he was writing propaganda for Communist countries, in which case he went as "Comrade" and doctored pictures of pretty girls who weren't impossibly, skeletally thin.

"Hi, Fam. Hi, War," said Pestilence, fiddling uncomfortably with his silverware. There were more people than he'd bargained for here, and he wasn't sure how to feel about that. There had always been four of them. Now there were seven.

"Have you met Dis?" asked War perkily. War was pretty. War had always been pretty. She had high cheekbones and a gaze of unwavering, determined nobility. Her hair was a leonine mess of red curls and her nails were perfectly manicured. She could make anything beautiful. She could convince any young man that he only need to protect his country to have her, and regularly roped Pestilence and Famine into her schemes. Pestilence had her to thank for a very successful Civil War in the 1800s.

"We've met," said Pestilence gloomily.

"And yet, you still haven't friended me!" exclaimed Disconnection with mock upset. Pestilence realized who the blue SUV belonged to, and felt sick. Disconnection didn't notice; he was texting on his phone. "I brought friends," he added, his eyes fixed on the screen.

"Hi. Indulgence." A rather chubby young man reached across the table to shake Pestilence's hand. Pestilence didn't even have time to cough in it. Indulgence had a round face with a sort of desperate smile, and exuded a nervousness normally reserved for little dogs. He seemed both embarrassed and desperate to be liked. His clothes were designer and more garish even than War's; Pestilence thought of the purple BMW and knew immediately the kind of person he was dealing with.

"A pleasure," he lied. "And you are..."

"Waste," she said. She was a wisp of a thing, with heavy-lidded eyes and a fairly haughty demeanor. Her hair was black and perfectly straight. Her hands looked like she played piano; one of them was wrapped around a Starbucks cup. She had the sort of posture that Victorian ladies would have died for.

"Bit of a crowd?" suggested Pestilence awkwardly, not sure how to ask the others what the hell they thought they were doing.

"This is nothing," said Indulgence quickly. He looked immediately embarrassed at his outburst, and took to the plate of cheese fries in front of him like there was an antidote hidden at the bottom.

Beside him, the last member of their party patted Pestilence's hand. She was old, as old as time, and looked the part. She didn't speak much. Pestilence wasn't sure whether her pat was a gesture of support, comfort, or warning.

"Times, they are a-changin'," said Famine with characteristic chipperness. "Honestly, Pest, you might find some of their methods helpful. Tell them about WoW, Indy."

Indulgence had a mouth full of food. With a look of pure embarrassment, he choked it down so he could answer. Pestilence could already tell he had a crush on War. "It's just a game online. Actually Dis showed me. It's called World of Warcraft."

War beamed. Indulgence grinned shyly. Disconnection cast a look of smug superiority around the table.

Pestilence frowned.

"I thought we were supposed to challenge the humans, to test them in ways that allows them to rise above, and showcase their inner divinity? Don't think a game will help much with that."

"Well, that's one idea," said Disconnection dismissively. "Rising above, huh? Well, I guess. Seems like a lot of work. I mean, not to be a jerk, but when have they ever really impressed any of us?"

"Hungry people tend to reduce themselves to animals," agreed Famine. "I don't see a lot of nobility on my end."

"But relief efforts show how they care about each other," countered Pestilence. "War, don't you occasionally see... see moments of compassion and love and... and... humanity?"

War tapped a finger on her lips. "Gosh, sure, sometimes, but you know, one in ten thousand, a handful per army. It's a lot of work to pick those ones out. This is a lot more streamlined."

"This? What this?" demanded Pestilence suspiciously.

"Us," clarified Waste. She had a surprisingly husky voice for such a waif of a woman. "We feel that this is faster and more... ah... modern. Not that you aren't all still very welcome to help us. War, we're all long-time fans of your work." War beamed. "But with technology outstripping all other human development, we really think there needs to be a new paradigm."

"Indulgence and I have some Department of Defense contracts that will blow your socks off!" added War. Her eyes lit up. "Literally blow 'em right off!"

"Waste's been very helpful," added Famine. He smiled at her, and her face looked a little less stern at him. Pestilence felt sicker than usual. Were they an item, too? Were they all pairing off and leaving him to combat biomedical research and vaccines by himself?

"No offense, Gramps," added Disconnection. When he spoke, all other faces turned toward him. He was an attention magnet. He was perfectly average, and perfectly forgettable, and yet as magnetic as any other force on earth. He leeched their attention like a dry earth sucks at water. On the tiny old woman on Pestilence's right seemed unaffected. She sipped her soup in a single-minded way and ignored them all.

"The thing is, people are living longer and longer, and it used to be, they'd find Grace in your work, but now it's just a puzzle they're solving. You've lost your edge. Whereas Indulgence here is really on to something. He's got people buying like never before, wrecking themselves... and I mean, it's great, everything's so mass produced, even the poorest can afford it. Or at least, they think they can. They corrupt themselves with it. Me and him, we go way back. You have no idea how great computers are."

"It's true!" piped up Famine, no doubt thinking of his cushy work-from-home situation. "I mean, people have always been greedy. This is just expanding on it. Used to be only kings could really go wild, while all their peasants tried not to starve in the winter." For a moment he looked out the window, looking a bit nostalgic for simpler times. Then he snapped out of his reverie and continued. "Now, well, look at any first-world country. Not a lot of sickness or starvation. But they take it in the opposite direction. Treat everything with antibiotics, over-eat to an early grave, work themselves in a frenzy for items they lived without for years earlier. Have a look at Black Friday. It's a pretty fine situation."

"Keurigs are fantastic," added Waste. "Have you tried a Keurig yet?"

"But it's not fair," protested Pestilence. "There's no chance for them to redeem themselves. That's the point. They're... they're supposed to be able to rise above."

"And they can," said Disconnection with a wicked smile. "It's easy. Log off. Don't get a smart phone. Play less video games. No more McDonald's. Heck, anyone can do it. They just don't."

"But it's not a conscious decision."

Pestilence looked at each of their faces, frantic to find anyone who agreed with him. But War was grinning with delight, and Indulgence was ducking his head to hide his smile, and Famine was cozied up to Waste, who was unwrapping individually wrapped candies and tossing the plastic wrappers all over the floor. Disconnection was on his phone.

Pestilence deflated a little; his bony shoulders sank, and he sighed, letting out a faint wheeze. "They're doomed."

"Perhaps they always were," said Disconnection absent-mindedly, without breaking eye contact with his phone.

Disgusted, Pestilence rose from the table. "I need a smoke break," he grumbled. Waste quickly pulled out a pack and offered him one, which he took gratefully. He noticed they had a long, styrofoam-like filter.

He went out to the parking lot to smoke in peace in the cool autumn day. Around him, leaves rattled in the trees, and a cloudy sky promised rain sometime in the night, after everyone was tucked snugly into bed. Pestilence mourned them. He always felt he'd given them a fair chance: a comfort, to care, to face his tests with chins held high. They banded together against him, in love for each other; they banded together in war, and sometimes even in famine. Yet with Disconnection and Waste and Indulgence, they seemed doomed to die on their rotting planet truly alone, without even the consolation that they were aware that it was happening. It made him very sad.

Behind him, he felt a presence. He turned. A tiny old woman with a white perm and a hand-knit sweater stood behind him with a soft smile and gentle eyes.

"What about you? Don't you have anything to say about this? Don't you think they're a bit... biased? It's not really... equitable, is it? It's supposed to be equitable. Psalm 17:2, and Ezekiel 18:25, and... You know, Job, and calling unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation..."

He was rambling, but she let him, watching placidly at the ribbon of smoke that trailing from his cigarette into the sky and dissipated without a trace.

When he trailed off, she looked directly at him. Their eyes met.

"Don't you worry about them?"

"Yes," she said softly. She patted his arm, and he knew it was meant to be comforting. "But worry isn't meant for us."

"What will happen to them, Death?"

"They'll all end up in the same place eventually, dear. At the end of the day, really, they're all the same. People are people. Love them for what they are, for all their faults and their childish ways."

"But they're making it worse!"

"No one makes it worse for humans than humans." Death reached a hand out to Pestilence. "But there will always be beauty in the squalor, if you look for it. Now come on. Let's go inside. Indulgence just ordered a key lime pie."

Hand in hand, they went back into the diner on Olive Tree Lane.

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